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Power & Water

Lasers Will Blaze the Path for Product Design

When the Industrial Revolution gained speed in the 1850s, it colored all facets of life, including some of the world’s most admired art. Advances in chemistry brought dozens of new pigments that allowed bright young artists like Monet, Cezanne and Pissarro to abandon tradition and revolutionize painting with new techniques and styles like impressionism.

The engineers and designers riding the latest iteration of the industrial revolution are also breaking with convention. They are using laser-powered 3D printers, 3D “inking” and “painting” machines, and other advanced manufacturing tools to make parts and products that were thought impossible to produce and which sometimes verge on art.

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Naim Josefi’s 3D-printed Melonia shoes at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. (Although GE made the material for the original moon walking boots, the company is not getting into the shoe business.)

3D printing methods such as direct metal laser melting (DMLM) use laser beams to create solid shapes out of loose grains fine metal powder. You could call it impressionism in reverse. Workers at GE Aviation are already using DMLM to make fuel nozzles for the next-generation LEAP jet engine. GE’s Power & Water unit, which spans power generation, energy delivery as well as water processing, is now also expanding into the space. Today the business broke ground on a new advanced manufacturing center in Greenville, SC.

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This lattice cube, which was made from titanium on an electron beam melting machine, resembles a bone chip. The “organic” design makes it two thirds lighter than a solid cube but maintains the solid’s compression strength.

The potential of advanced manufacturing is huge. Over at GE Aviation, for example, the 3D-printed fuel nozzle for the LEAP is five times more durable than the previous model. 3D printing also allowed engineers to use a simpler design that reduced the number of brazes and welds from 25 to just five.

The Greenville center will focus specifically on additive manufacturing, welding, joining and new materials like high-temperature ceramics. The goal of the center is to make rapid prototyping easier, speed up product development, and bring new products like large efficient gas turbines for power generation faster to market.

Engineers in Greenville are already experimenting with a number of 3D printers and powerful lasers that can finish complicated welds that used to take hours in just minutes.

GE estimates that advanced manufacturing could speed up the product development cycle by as much as 70 percent. Since 3D printing does not require any tooling, the center will also cut development costs.

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Top image and above: Spinning gas turbine compressors at GE’s Greenville plant.

The $70-million center will open in late 2015 and create more than 80 jobs. The center is part of GE’s $400 million investment in the Greenville plant over the next decade.

It’s worth noting that the money spent on the center would scarcely cover the price of one Water Lily painting by Monet today. You could ascribe the discrepancy to the whimsy of the art market. But don’t overlook the lasting value of a powerful new idea.

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